“Is there anything French left in your new trains?” That was the question that garnered guffaws in the Elgar Room at the Royal Albert Hall yesterday, where the CEO of Eurostar, Nicolas Petrovic, was hosting a press conference to announce a £700m investment in its fleet. That the question came from a fellow Frenchman representing Radio France was of visible chagrin to Petrovic. And the British Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, who sat to Petrovic’s right, couldn’t help but smile.
But the CEO’s answer was measured, well-rehearsed and vague, he’d clearly been expecting it. “Eurostar is a European company,” he said, “and the choice of the train is all about the commercial benefit to Eurostar and for the benefit of the client, it’s all about the client, about having more people choose rail travel.”
What had gotten up the Radio France journalist’s not inconsiderable nose was the glaring lack of French input into the new fleet. Eurostar has closed a deal with German train manufacturer Siemens that will see the newly formed Eurostar International Limited (now a single corporate entity owned by three shareholders: SNCF, SNCB and LCR) beef up its rolling stock with 10 new 400m-long trains, capable of carrying 20 per cent more passengers and reaching speeds of 320 km/h. Both the existing trains and the new e320s will receive interior styling and external livery by Italian industrial designers Pininfarina, famous for their work with Ferrari and Alfa Romeo – you can almost hear Philippe Starck choking on his Cancale oysters.
There is something to Petrovic’s answer. Eurostar’s investment is more about opening up its network to the rest of Europe and being more “European”, extending its reach beyond the UK, France and Belgium to reach other countries that are joining the high-speed rail race. By 2014, when the new trains will be delivered, Eurostar hopes to hurl passengers from London to Amsterdam, Frankfurt and the south of France in record times, in a bid to further extend its market share and beat the airlines into submission. Mention of the British high-speed network was meagre, but Hammond promised that the first high-speed link would be from Birmingham to London and would be complete by 2026. Hmm.
In theory, there is something genuinely exciting about some solid German engineering softened with a spot of Italian styling; and all this funded with a bit of French and British money. Most of all, the prospect of a serious, far-reaching premium rail service across Europe is encouraging. One only hopes that the French government will endorse the trains in time for operation – ministers have hinted that they won’t sanction the rolling stock unless it meets their safety standards. It seems there is something French left in the trains after all – bureaucracy.